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Senators Spar With Hovensa, Subcontractor Over Hirings

Jan 28, 2005 – "We have conflicting testimony here and have set a task before us – to find the truth," was how Sen. Craig Barshinger summed up the eight-hour Senate Labor and Agriculture Committee hearing on Thursday in Frederiksted.
The committee in the morning heard from Alex Moorhead, vice president of Hovensa, and two managers, Jim Babin and Richard Langner of Sun Constructors, a company doing electrical work at Hovensa. All three men said they were doing everything they could to hire qualified St. Croix residents to work at the refinery.
Sun employed 475 workers in December, of which 225 were island residents.
Sen. Celestino White spoke of planeloads of workers arriving on St. Croix and going straight to work at Hovensa. Moorhead said the workers White was referring to was a group that came in to do a 23-day turnaround project at the refinery.
These were pipefitters, boilermakers and welders whom the V.I. Department of Labor was unable to supply, according to Moorhead. He said Labor was notified that 88 pipefitters were needed, but the department could refer only 18 applicants.
"There were 14 positions for boilermakers and only four referrals. What are we supposed to do when this happens? Quit working?" Moorhead said.
White said it was a disadvantage for local workers to be registered at the V.I. Department of Labor and be referred to job openings. Later in the meeting, Cecil Benjamin, Labor commissioner, proposed legislation that would require all workers, even if they were from the mainland, to register at the department to be considered for employment.
Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg said he was concerned over an application that Langner had allowed to be circulated among senators.
Langner had presented the application as evidence where, for a particular posting, he had to set aside half of the applications he received from the Department of Labor because they were incomplete or illegible. He said he then lost a third of the remaining applicants because they failed a drug test. Finally, about another third were disqualified because they could not pass a reading comprehension test. This test – to ensure safety of the workers – requires they read at an 8th grade level.
Donastorg said the application should not have been released in a public forum. He said it was an insult to the person who filled it out.
In his opening remarks Moorhead spoke about Hovensa forming a partnership with the Department of Education to introduce a Summer Academy to help high school teachers of math and science get certified. He said the idea came from the Department of Education, but Hovensa was encouraging it.
Senators and testifiers agreed the Virgin Islands was failing in its education of students.
"We have failed miserably to properly educate and train our people in the territory," Benjamin said.
In the afternoon, the committee heard from Jason Rames and Mark Vitalis, V.I. residents who said they were qualified workers but not hired at Hovensa.
Vitalis said he had heard imported workers were allowed to take the test with open books in the comfort of their hotel rooms.
He called the earlier testimony of Moorhead, Babin and Langner "sweet lies." He said, "I am not illiterate. I am not a drug addict, and I did not get hired."
In later testimony Benjamin said that Vitalis had been offered a job, but found some of the conditions unacceptable.
Moorhead, Babin and Langner denied there was any conspiracy to hire imported labor. Babin pointed out that imported labor was more expensive than local labor because imported workers are paid about $750 a week living expenses. He also said, that as a general rule, local workers are more dependable than those brought in from the states.
Sen. Ronald Russell was critical of Hovensa from a historical perspective.
He said Hovensa had systematically broken the agreement signed with the V.I. government in 1965 when the refinery was being established on the island.
He read from the agreement a line stating "75 percent of the persons employed in the operation and maintenance of the oil refinery and related facilities shall be legal residents of the Virgin Islands."
Moorhead responded that practically all of the 1,200 permanent employees at Hovensa are island residents.
Russell said Hovensa knows every couple years there will be a need for workers to do the turnaround – a maintenance project where machinery is inspected, cleaned and repaired if necessary — but there is nothing in place to train local workers to do it.
Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste said he believed Hovensa, the contractors and the legislators all had the same goal – to get more St. Croix residents employed. He urged that more meetings with Hovensa be scheduled so methods to reach that goal could be found.
Sheryll Jones, human resources manager, Wyatt V.I. Corp., which is handling the turnaround project, was invited but did not attend.
In addition to the senators mentioned above, Sens. Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion and Liston Davis were in attendance.
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